Report written by Laurence BARON-CALLEGARI
The painting, at the time of its discovery, was buried under several thick coats of yellowed varnish. On the right side of the canvas dripping water had caused heavy blanching, which gave the varnish in that area a whitish cast.
This film of yellowed varnish, in darkening the whites and in reducing the depth of the blacks, had diminished the overall contrast of the composition and the half tones had completely disappeared. The visual aspect of the painting had been profoundly affected.
It was first decided to remove the surface dirt from the pictorial layer and to regenerate the varnish in order to recover some of its transparency.
The visual aspect of the painting, even if it had improved following this first intervention, remained unsatisfactory.
In 2014, after deliberation, it was decided to patch test a light clean of the varnish to see if it was feasible and opportune to subsequently proceed to do the same over the ensemble of the painting.
These tests were conclusive. Given the magnitude of the task, we decided to proceed first with other tests and after discussion in November of 2018 it was finally decided to lightly reduce the varnish and to remove any points of repainting. The oxidized varnish was very old (undoubtedly dating from the 19th century) and likely to have been heavily oil based.
The spectacular result confirmed that our decision was well founded. This gesture of conservation had brought back the power of the contrasts, the virtuosity of the paint handling and the subtleness of the modeling. This transformation was particularly striking in the face of the servant Abra. While covered with the yellowed varnish, the wrinkles of her face appeared stiff and systematically done. The lightening of the oxidized varnish allowed the recovery of all of the half tones that now softened the contrasts. In fact, the darkened varnish that had settled into the cavities of the paint surface had slightly modified the drawing of the wrinkles, hardening them.
Painting conservation allows one an unparalleled opportunity to observe in great detail the paint and the painter’s technique in applying it. Our observations were solidly supported by the (photographic) imaging and detailed analysis done by Claudio Falcucci.
The numerous pentimenti testify to a composition developed and rethought during its execution. These pentimenti are so decisive for the structure of this work that they could never be attributed to the hesitation of a copyist correcting an error in an outline. The two pentimenti that are the most noteworthy are those to be found in the eyes of Judith, whose gaze was initially turned towards Holofernes and which the painter modified in order to direct it towards the spectator, effectively turning them into witnesses to the scene.
The modification in the position of Holofernes left hand is not a simple adjusting of the shape during its execution but a deliberate changing of its position in the space of the composition.
The artist’s technique is very distinctive. In various places the artist intentionally leaves the brown ground visible. He uses it in the modeling of the white drapery or as a color in itself, for example in the fingernail of the thumb on Abra’s right hand.
This same technique of using the ground is exploited to create the shadow on Judith’s chin. Here the cleft in her chin under her lower lip is drawn by a touch of black laid against the bare ground. In numerous places the artist surrounds the shapes using a darker outline.
It was decided not to do any retouching of the small losses and wear. The aspect of the mastic present in these areas was simply softened to lessen the impact of their contrasting with the rest of the paint surface.
The lower edge of the canvas had suffered numerous losses most likely a result of being exposed to excessive humidity due to water infiltration in the attic where it had been stored. Over the whole of the composition there are only the very occasional small spots of paint loss, deep and insignificant. There is some superficial wear in the flesh tones.
The one area that has moderate damage is to be found in the white sheet. Superficial wear has, in some spots, erased the smoothness of the transition from lighter accents to the deeper shadows. Judith’s skirt is also lightly worn. There were however no areas of paint loss or wear that had needed to be retouched.
The ensemble of the painting is in excellent condition for a work of this period.